If their proliferation is any indication, farmers markets have become an increasingly popular way for shoppers to acquire healthy, locally produced vegetables, fruits, meats and other products from a central location.
But what happens when the weather turns cold and those markets cease operation for the year? That's the position many devotees of Tulsa's Cherry Street Farmers Market found themselves in this fall, especially those who had grown fond of the free-range eggs and grass-fed chicken that Wes Downing produces at Downing Family Farm in Grove.
So Downing got together with some other vendors at the market and came up with a creative solution: Clean Food Tulsa, a coalition of Oklahoma growers and producers that offers its products for sale via a Web site (www.cleanfoodtulsa.locallygrown.net), then allows customers to place an order and pick it up at a central location every two weeks.
Downing said Clean Food Tulsa offers everything from beef, pork and chicken to laundry soap, fresh-baked breads and ready-to-heat entrees.
"In my opinion, these are the best products in Oklahoma," he said. "I use all of them, especially the laundry soap."
Downing said he conceived the idea of Clean Food Tulsa at the request of his Cherry Street Farmers Market customers, who still wanted to be able to purchase his products over the winter without having to drive to Grove. Downing came across a software system from Athens, Ga., that would allow him to create a virtual farmers market.
After that, it didn't take long to attract vendors, he said.
Clean Food Tulsa offers 288 products from nine vendors, a figure that continues to rise, Downing said, noting he had just gotten off the phone with a new producer who was going to be selling up to 20 varieties of cheese through the Web site. The organization has 200 active members, he said.
Downing said there is no membership fee to join Clean Food Tulsa and no hidden costs. There is no minimum or maximum order, and patrons can order only the items they want. The average member usually orders $100 worth of merchandise every other week, he said.
Members simply create an account on the Web site and browse the inventory until they find the items they want before placing their order. No online financial transactions take place, Downing said. Customers pick up their order at Central Park at South 6th Street and Peoria Avenue the first and third Saturdays of each month between 9am and 11am.
It's not even necessary to leave your car, Downing said. Patrons simply pull up to a line, give their name to a volunteer and have their order placed in their vehicle by the grower or producer. Payment is made by cash or check.
Downing noted it's a rare occurrence when someone places an order and doesn't show up to claim it.
"We have almost a 100 percent pick-up rate," he said. "To me, that is just amazing."
The organization is run with volunteers, and Clean Food Tulsa receives no proceeds, Downing said.
Vendors get 97 percent of the take, while the other 3 percent goes to the software producer in Georgia who invented the system the vendors use.
The ease with which the whole process works is hard for some patrons to believe, Downing said.
"Some people have asked me, 'What's the catch?' " he said. "I tell them there is no catch. We just want to offer locally made products and locally made food year round."
Despite being around for only a few weeks, Downing said Clean Food Tulsa is growing quickly with the help of such organizations as the Sierra Club and the Oklahoma Sustainability Network. He noted that spinoff groups in Enid, Oklahoma City and Lawton are already in the works.
Downing acknowledged the parallels between Clean Food Tulsa and the Oklahoma Food Coop, a much larger online organization based in Oklahoma City that has been around since August 2003, recently surpassing $1 million in annual sales. The Oklahoma Food Coop boasts more than 2,600 vendors and more than 2,000 members, but patrons are required to purchase a share of the coop at $51.75 before they can place an order.
Downing said Clean Food Tulsa vendors are members of the Oklahoma Food Coop and sell their wares via that Web site, as well.
"Our intention is not to be taking anything away from the Oklahoma Food Coop but to add to that by twice-monthly delivery," he said, adding that his organization also appeals to those who balk at paying the Oklahoma Food Coop membership fee.
Downing emphasized that most of the Clean Food Tulsa vendors are from the Tulsa area, reducing transportation costs and adding to their appeal from a sustainability standpoint. But a few vendors from around the state offer products that aren't available in Tulsa, such as the all-natural laundry soap that comes from Enid and the greens that an Oklahoma City grower offers.
"We added those because of the simple fact that nobody in Tulsa was producing them," he said.
That "locally grown" tag is not as important to some customers as others, Downing said.
"Some seem very aware of it, but to others, a chicken breast is a chicken breast."
But more and more customers are concerned about where their food comes from, Downing said, noting that films such as "Food, Inc." have gone a long way toward raising that awareness by exposing the unhealthy practices that many corporations engage in to boost productivity and profits.
"It really makes you look at your supper a little bit differently," he said. "You might say, 'I can't believe I'm eating this pork chop that was grown in its own feces.' "
Downing acknowledged that one weakness of Clean Food Tulsa is the scarcity of produce in the winter. But he has a plan to deal with that.
Next year, when growers at the Cherry Street Farmers Market have unsold green beans remaining, Downing said, he plans to buy them, then blanche them and freeze them, offering them for sale through Clean Food Tulsa in the winter.
"We've actually secured a commercial kitchen where we're at, and we'll do that next summer," he said.
Downing said Clean Food Tulsa likely will continue to operate even when the Cherry Street Farmers Market resumes operation. Patrons will be able to place their order online, then arrive at the market at their leisure to pick it up. That way, "they don't have to get out of bed at 7am to get eggs," he said. "We have a lot of people who come in at 9 and say, 'Where are the eggs at?' They're always gone by then."
This way, Downing said, patrons can shop the rest of the market for impulse items, then pick up their staples that they've already ordered.
He also welcomes new vendors. Anyone with locally produced food or products to sell can contact him through the Clean Food Tulsa Web site under the "Frequently Asked Questions" link.
Downing wants Tulsans to understand that buying locally grown and produced food is becoming easier all the time.
"Anything that stands for the local economy and local good movements, we're for," he said. "When it works to get rid of the Walmarts in our state, we're for it."
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